The Black Door

Monday, May 17, 2004 – People who know me know how highly I speak (no pun intended) of Toastmasters International, a remarkable organization that truly empowers its members to achieve their full potential and realize their dreams. There are Toastmasters clubs in more than 80 countries — about 200 Toastmasters clubs are “doing business” in Massachusetts alone — and in each one people like you and me are developing their communication and leadership skills, and finding the courage to change. Back in the day, one of my dreams was to hone my public speaking skills to the point where I could lead seminars and speak at conferences and industry events about direct marketing and creativity. At the time (in the late ‘80s), the extent of my public speaking opportunities was only a couple of wedding toasts — admittedly, fair to middling “best man” mumbo jumbo — so if I was ever going to make it to the big leagues, I knew I needed to take more swings of the bat. I knew I needed Toastmasters. That was then. Now, looking back, I can unequivocally say that more than five years of experience as a Toastmaster — including two stints as club president and more than several rounds of speech contests — went a long way toward changing my life, instilling in me the confidence and skills necessary for all the speaking I do nowadays part and parcel of my career. Over the last dozen years or so, I have made countless formal presentations before audiences of all kinds — such as the meeting planners and suppliers that I spoke to recently about The Shoestring Secrets of Well-Heeled Direct Marketers, or the continuing education students at Bentley College, for whom I presented a class on The Principles of Copywriting, from Direct Mail to Email. And occasionally, I will talk to anyone who will listen (staff, colleagues, friends, relatives, readers of A Fine Kettle of Fish) about something that’s more than a small challenge to many of us in this day and age — the concept of change and risk-taking and moving outside of our own little comfort zones. I will stress the importance of grabbing the bull by the horns, reaching for the brass ring and seizing the day (carpe diem) before I launch into the following Christian-based parable about opening The Black Door:

This is a story about a spy who had been captured and sentenced to death by a general of the Persian army. The general, however, permitted the condemned person to choose between the firing squad or the black door.

As the moment of execution drew near, the general ordered the spy to be brought before him to receive the doomed man’s decision. This was not an easy decision, and the prisoner hesitated, but soon he made it known that he preferred the firing squad. Not long thereafter, a volley of shots in the courtyard announced the grim sentence had been fulfilled. The general turned to his aide and said, “You see how it is with people; they will always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. And yet I gave him his choice!”

“What lies behind the black door?” asked the aide.

“Freedom,” replied the general, “and I’ve known only a few men brave enough to take it.”

There are two messages to this story. The first, of course, is that we will often choose the familiar, even if it is undesirable, over the unknown, which might represent a wonderful opportunity. And second, that few people are brave enough to choose freedom.

I’m not saying we should reject the familiar — not by any means. But we should question the familiar. Just because it is familiar doesn’t make it good, best, or even the right thing to do.

Right now you are probably saying to yourself, “I would have chosen the black door. I would have had nothing to lose; the firing squad was certain death.”

But actually faced with the choice, would you really? How many doors to freedom have we passed up during our lives because we tend to cling so fiercely to the familiar?

How many times have frightening events come about that later proved to be gainful? Each of them was a black door through which we eventually passed to greater freedom. But at the time, we may have chosen to keep things as they were.

It’s good to remember that it is often those things we worry about and fear most that turn out to be blessings in disguise.

I’m sure many of you might be reluctant to take (such and such risk). But once you do, will it not add greater freedom to your lives? For many of you, I’m sure, (such and such risk) will open doors to once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

So I urge you, all of you, do not be afraid to choose the black door.

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